I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“I don’t want the kind of career where everything is sensible and safe; I’d rather suffer through the anxiety of wondering where I’m going next than suffer the boredom of dancing in the same safe square.”
Harmony Holiday’s latest poetry collection, Hollywood Forever, is a synthesizing force of visual, auditory, and textual elements. It uses a variety of media to invoke black cultural icons and autobiographical details that take on the expectations of the white gaze, art for profit models, black private spaces, ancestral teachings, Afrofuturism, and more. For Holiday, visual and auditory accompaniments have always been a part of her poetry’s grammar. Her first book, Negro League Baseball (2010, Fence Books) came with a CD of tracks she sourced, curated, and mixed out of the double helix of black listening and black sound. In her 2014 collection, Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues (Ricochet Editions), an exploration of her deceased father’s past, she enriched the intimacy of its epistolary mode by setting text against image.
The visuals in Hollywood Forever explore even further, featuring white supremacist flyers warning against listening to “negro records,” paparazzi photographs of black artists, low-res screen captures of Yahoo search results for Nibiru, and Amazon book reviews for Angela Davis’s If They Come In The Morning. The digital version of the book has embedded audio and video files that include popular footage of black films and television series, dance performances onstage and at home, and short interview clips. The texts themselves, ranging across typographies and modes like the treatise, lyric, narrative, and slogan, are as radically ungoverned and nimble as the book’s other elements. While the layered mash-up may at first seem like a critical appropriation of digital culture, Hollywood Forever quickly reveals itself to be a uniquely subtle, carefully honed deployment of the Internet’s aesthetics of plenty. While the layered mash-up may at first seem like a critical appropriation of digital culture, Hollywood Forever quickly reveals itself to be a uniquely subtle, carefully honed deployment of an aesthetics of plenty that’s rooted, instead, in a generations-long collective improvisation we more readily associate with various strains of black American music. Holiday isn’t trying to promote herself by affecting literary mastery over various texts and media; she’s getting the band together so they can jam. When you come to Hollywood Forever, know that the price of this ticket is your ass, or, as Amiri Baraka wrote, “New Black Music is this: Find the self, then kill it.”
Holiday answered my questions on a Google Doc between traveling and working on her current projects, which include choreographing dance pieces based on Hollywood Foreverthat she will perform in several cities later this year, working on a book of poems and lyric essays on reparations and the body, and writing a biography of jazz singer Abbey Lincoln.
Farid Matuk Hollywood Forever is named after a cemetery in Los Angeles. Your father, the interlocutor in much of your work, passed away when you were a child. How does this book engage with time and loss?
Harmony Holiday It hopes to decolonize our collective sense of death and eternity. At the often-silenced or shamed root of black and Afrikan spirit tradition, our children are our parents’ ancestors. In translation, the living embody and reconcile the so-called dead. Who we are explains who they are, and they are present, among us, weighing in daily, whether we listen, or pretend some kind of prude secular deafness. They come into us as music, and, if we’re lucky, as the space where imagination and memory collaborate. This book starts in the middle of that very space, in what Amiri Baraka would have called “1960 now,” where the West’s vain longing for an assassin/savior to put it out of its misery might have crystallized, where Jet magazine’s black bourgeoisie “becoming nobody” aesthetic might have hatched, where tender rebels like Miles Davis learn their craft and go practice the best of it in private, much to the dismay and protracted rage of their white audiences.
My father isn’t really gone. He’s just given the vague dignity of black privacy, and in trade, he teaches me something about what the white spectator does to black private life, how complicit we are in allowing it, and how we might be happier with our backs turned to it all. As America becomes more cemetery than republic each day, it’s satisfying to objectify it the way it has objectified us, and what better location to use than Hollywood, and what fantasy is more obscene than a static forever in which the current world order plays out in an eternal reel?
FM Is black private life a space for the abandoned, a space for retreat, or neither?
HH In the world of the book, I’m thinking about how much is stolen from great black men and women the moment we get the white world’s attention, how much we end up catering to ideas of ourselves propagated by that world, either to make money or because our psyches become addicted to that pathetic talented-tenth myth. We turn on our communities for fear that the fragile sense of self-worth white attention grants us could be diminished if we, for example, create our own award shows and prizes with our own criteria and actually believe we’re worthy with or without that oppressive hype machine. I’m also looking at the lethal results of packaging ourselves for mass consumption, at the black men and women who died or were killed trying to deliver these neat packages full of blood and guts and fear and hope and shame refracted by showmanship.
FM There’s some resonance of what you’re saying in your piece “Black Privacy” that includes the line, “We hold on to the scrutiny all our lives, guarding our silence like a threat.”
HH I’m glad it resonates. That line refers to the black feminine erotic energy more than the masculine, our modes of exclusion and self-preservation, that specific way of being cruel through silence or withholding, often mistaken for pardon or obliviousness. It’s a vengeful method that we, as black women, use when treated like we’re invisible or invincible or like we have a ‘supernatural ability to endure pain.’ Vengeance makes us resourceful. The silence comes when we dare a man to admit to himself that selling out or selling short or general complacency isn’t acceptable. That silence, or muffled disappointment, is intended to eat away at the private fallacy that deems successful assimilation to be a heroic thing. It alerts the Uncle Tom syndrome of how bluntly it lacks favor. So we have your back, we have everyone’s back, we are the backbone of this society and the most cunning and tender and loyal of the species, but after a certain threshold of neglect gets crossed, we can’t be expected to tell you what we really think anymore. We learn to placate, to reclaim our own private lives and the freedom of private opinions. We may not tell the whole world how we’re terrorized by its disregard for our subjectivity, but we’re good at showing the world what it feels like when we stop allowing ourselves to be archetypes in the wrong myths and build our own in which we’re central, private, not for sale, and heraldic.
FM Write vs. curate?
HH Write, but with an eye tuned to “the light in the sound,” as Fred Moten so aptly called it once.
FM Book vs. project?
HH This is a book in a specific form, not a curatorial project. The images and samples are part of the grammar of the poems. They are what the language is confronting, and therefore they are the language.
FM That’s beautiful. It seems to me you’re taking poetry quite seriously as a mode rather than a menu of forms, and that’s always the most perverse gesture, or it’s the impulse that produces the gestures most likely to rescue art from its conventions.
HH Love that. I also want to rescue myself from conventions while I’m at it, so it’s a double conscious gesture, or a fugitive one. I don’t want us, the trusty diaspora, to feel like fugitive slaves forever and it takes a new form, a new hierarchy of values, to exceed that stateless state.
FM Hollywood Forever takes seriously the story that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot from a hotel where he was meeting with prostitutes, but it also situates it as something that had real purchase in the white supremacist imagination. What tactical use, if any, is Hollywood Forevermaking of this story? Is situating King as a philanderer or john a way to make his death and life less exceptional so we can all get back on the hook of decolonizing everything?
HH The intention is to humanize and decolonize him. The point of making it all plain and drawing connections between King’s spiritual and political charisma and his personal life, connections that King, the brand, tries to omit, is to redeem the very things that Protestant hypocrisy teaches us to chastise. This allows us to contemplate what it was that made King capable of taking to podiums and risking his life every day for a seemingly lost cause. Even the hero archetype has coping mechanisms; the stage set and occupied by said hero is practically a snare meant to scoop him into the dissimulating abyss of US history like an artifact. Discussing his transgressions disrupts that kind of oversimplification of his stance, and means he cannot become a sterile object in the service of a narrative about the well-behaved God praising negro preacher or upper middle class well-to-do negro citizen who accomplishes everything he desires by obeying the ten commandments. It’s refreshing to consider that King had as many women as a famous rapper pretends to have, and was that dissatisfied with the society he fought to integrate—his integrity is rooted in his contradictions, or those things are not as contradictory as they are made to seem.
FM Your piece, “The Attempted Lynching of Jasmine Richards,” references the contemporary Black Lives Matter activist in Pasadena, California who, through a perversion of anti-lynching legislation, was convicted of attempted “felony lynching” for intervening in an instance of state-sanctioned policing of another black body. Against that backdrop your speaker addresses her mother: “… even your daughter is a runaway slave, even me! She shrugs. Yeah! And turns up the volume on her Martin rerun.” Can you talk about the figures, images, texts, and audio that in their respective contexts sometimes contested power and sometimes flirted with minstrelsy?
HH Shows like In Living Color, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Martin were modern minstrel shows in no uncertain terms—visceral vaudeville that openly longed for assimilation, and openly hated itself. All of that reveling was a form of shame and it gave white Americans access to Afro American self-loathing with an unearned degree of intimacy. In that sense it was tender and almost benevolent. I was imagining how that kind of numbed out clown frequency would deal with genuine revelation, how a break in the conceit would be received. What I realized is that it would be missed, that the opiate that sustained minstrelsy leaves space for slipping into sincerity and being totally ignored.
When I first realized that not everyone who laughs with you has the capacity to suffer with you, that black humor wasn’t really making white America empathetic with our suffering and it was just entertainment and abstract, I stopped finding In Living Color and the black butler on Fresh Prince funny and anodyne. But I also understood that the joke was forever on the ones laughing because they could not get past those smoke screens. Off screen, black bodies could retain an entirely different sensibility, ironically protected from the violence of private assimilation propagated by that public minstrelsy.
FM Why did you omit references and citations for the images and borrowed texts?
HH That choice was equal parts aesthetic and political. Just as I chose not to cloak heroism in its usual sanctimony, I was not concerned with Western modes of cross-referencing. This book is meant to be a performance, an experience that occurs viscerally and is not interrupted and corrupted by the academic tendency to seek authority by being hyper-referential or so cerebral as to be both cold and unassailable. Imagine a movie rolling the credits right through its scenes or dancers calling out the names of steps and music they are dancing to in the middle of performances. My most wished for audience for this book is mostly young and black and used to parsing through disparate images. It’s for black youth who feel disinherited, a roadmap for connecting hidden dots. I want the material to be felt and mobilized, and not in a clinical premeditated way. A wild herb, not a big pharma patented hybridized version of one with a list of side effects as long as the reparations bill.
FM In the afterword to your first book, you wrote about the Negro League, and the dream of “all of us just being us.” How has your conception of blackness changed since 2010, and have you come to think differently about what you’re writing towards?
HH I’ll always be writing toward reparations by which I mean a reclamation of my body from all levels of captivity in Western forms, from the linguistic to the dietary to the economic to the spiritual. What would The United States of America be like today if black people really owned and defined our own bodies? Would we still want to prove that success is making it to a white suburb and learning about George Washington and those placid square-shaped years? I’m writing toward a body whose desires and practices are real and transgressive, pre-industrial capitalism, pre-transatlantic slave trade, pre-any bullshit, toward that same electric body Whitman mentions but on more refined or, just blacker, terms.
FM By some measures, three books in means you’re no longer an “emerging poet” and have now entered “mid-career.” Looking back, what have you learned from each book project?
HH I’ve learned how to live and outlive the contexts of each book and inhabit new spaces for the next one. I’m a steadfast kind of restless and pretty hard on myself, and have a high standard for what I need to make, so I’m not afraid to change and shift my style or form as I evolve, but that means letting go of talismans that worked in the past, not leaning on them as tricks to propel new ideas or stages forward. In that sense I relate to a person like Miles Davis, who is my artistic ego ideal. I don’t want the kind of career where everything is sensible and safe; I’d rather suffer through the anxiety wondering where I’m going next than suffer the boredom of dancing in the same safe square. Each project has taught me something about urgency—when it’s right, it’s also urgent, not careful or too premeditated but also so clear it can’t help itself. And this round I’ve had to learn how to let go of something that could keep refining ad infinitum. When I first finished Hollywood Forever I was so deep in its very specific mode I wanted to keep going, make a part two. Eventually something entirely new became more urgent and released that impulse. In a way it feels right to make every book this way and in another way it feels right to never go there in the same way again.
FM I want to read the last image in the printed book (I don’t know who it is, or the circumstance, so I’m also asking that too) as a body gesturing affirmation for the thing or work that just overwhelmed it.
HH That’s the homie Jason from Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason. He renamed himself Jason Holliday and in the film rants candidly about his exuberant ennui with role playing, while playing a really ecstatic and tragically mundane jester role to recount his equal access to glamour and squalor. If the image was used in one of those ‘caption this’ posts that aim to galvanize meme language on Worldstar’s Instagram, the winning attempt would read: Alright, cut. You need to Cut it. He’s not overwhelmed, just done performing.
Farid Matuk is the author of This Isa Nice Neighborhood (Letter Machine Editions, 2010) and of the chapbook My Daughter La Chola (Ahsahta, 2013). A new chapbook, From Don’t Call It Reginald Denny, is forthcoming in 2018 along with his second full-length collection, The Real Horse.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee